No one is surprised Boris Johnson is relaxed for breaking the law; the British Prime Minister could still lose his job for the lockdown holidays. But his decision to break international law – proposing legislation to gut the Northern Ireland Protocol from the UK’s post-Brexit treaty with the EU – should still be horrifying.
The protocol was a solution to a specific problem: if the UK deviated from EU rules after Brexit, how to avoid erecting a destabilizing border for goods moving between Northern Ireland and the republic? Johnson’s negotiated solution was a trick: leave the north aligned in some respects with Ireland and undertake controls on goods from Britain.
There are problems with the protocol. Many trade unionists – people who cherish Northern Ireland’s place in the UK – worry about the ‘Irish Sea border’. It had real-world effects: items missing from shelves and little bureaucratic reminders that Northern Ireland is a special place. There should be efforts to address their anxieties.
But there are structures built into the protocol to do this – and Johnson has abandoned them. The negotiations stopped in February. The UK has not triggered the clauses built into the treaty for emergencies. There is a landing zone for a widely supported deal – in particular, proposals for different treatment for goods that are unlikely to leave Northern Ireland.
The fact that Britain will not try to solve these problems using treaty mechanisms makes the UK’s ostensible legal argument ludicrous: it claims, absurdly, that there is no other option . But this bill is toxic, even if it is defeated. Beyond its dubious legality, it is likely to prove counterproductive.
The stated reason for the government’s approach is to create the political space for Northern Ireland’s institutions to resume their work. The Democratic Unionist Party, as the largest Unionist party, can veto their operation. It does this during the existence of the protocol. Even now, however, the DUP has not backed down.
The Johnson government must take responsibility. Ministers have continually stoked the grievances of trade unionists. And why would the DUP back down? London has made it clear that it will bow to intransigence.
The loser in all of this is Northern Ireland. Most voters in the May elections backed parties that backed the protocol. The wishes of this majority are ignored. A divided society like Northern Ireland cannot be run by mere majoritarianism – but neither can it survive Unionist opinion being elevated above the concerns of everyone else.
Some may calculate that this ruse will put pressure on the European Commission to give ground. They are wrong. The main challenge for the EU is to find a way to send a clear signal that it will enforce the law and not be swayed by these tantrums. He should try to keep a low profile. He knows Britain cannot afford to escalate into a trade war – and the continent is trying to stick together for Ukraine.
Anyway, who would want to negotiate with Johnson, who so easily reneges on agreements? Diplomats calculated that he might not have a majority for this law – and that his government could collapse anyway. That is, after all, why we are here. A Prime Minister weakened by his own lack of personal discipline is now using Northern Ireland to win over Brexit zealots in his own party. Some of the demands are for the benefit of English right-wingers, not trade unionists.
Tory MPs with sounder judgment should help bury this legislation as quickly as possible. It’s one thing to have a Prime Minister who doesn’t respect the rules of confinement. It is quite another to neglect the rules-based international order.